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The U.S. is hungry for seafood, but more industrial aquaculture is not the answer

November 4, 2021, 11:33 AM UTC
Stress from cramped conditions can make farmed fish more susceptible to illness and pests that can spread to surrounding wild fish.
Stress from cramped conditions can make farmed fish more susceptible to illness and pests that can spread to surrounding wild fish.
Boris Horvat—Getty Images

As coastal restaurants and markets rebuild their businesses following a brutal year and a half of challenges due to the COVID pandemic and Hurricane Ida, it’s time to rethink our approach to sourcing seafood.

A recent commentary piece from a Sysco food executive argued that expanding industrial aquaculture is the best way to increase domestic fish production and reduce our nation’s reliance on imported seafood. Consumer demand for seafood is strong and a robust domestic supply would be ideal, but industrial aquaculture in our oceans is not the answer to challenges in our seafood supply chain. 

An often-cited statistic to prove the need for industrial aquaculture is that as a country, we import as much as 90% of the seafood we consume. A lesser-known fact is that U.S. seafood exports have grown to record levels over the past decade. Sometimes, we export and import the same type of products, because other countries are willing to pay more for fish from the U.S. where we often use higher safety, environmental, and labor standards. Meanwhile, U.S. consumers prefer to pay less for cheaper fish farmed abroad. Rather than allowing destructive fish farming practices that can pollute our environment and displace commercial fishing in our markets, we should support our domestic fishing communities, so they can sell more of the higher-quality wild-caught seafood we produce here at home.

Right now, megacorporations are pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies to gut existing regulations and fast-track permit approvals to build new floating factory fish farms and control even more of the seafood market.

These kinds of industrial aquaculture facilities use giant cages filled with tens of thousands of fish. Stress from being confined, cramped, and seeing predators outside cages regularly can make farmed fish more susceptible to illness and pests that can spread to surrounding wild fish. Facilities regularly excrete excess fish feed, fish waste, antibiotics, and other chemicals that pollute the water, threaten wildlife, and hurt natural habitats. 

Here in Louisiana, we are already battling pollution and the loss of our coastal ecosystems. Our fragile environment and coastal communities are facing severe impacts from climate change too. We do not want more threats to our resources and livelihoods. In fact, an industrial aquaculture facility planned for construction in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida has been met with widespread opposition because it’s expected to pollute waters and worsen the devastating red tides and coral die-offs we’ve seen in recent years.

Some states in the U.S. are heading in the right direction and charting a path for the rest. Washington State outlawed non-native ocean fish farming after a disastrous spill let farmed fish escape into the surrounding waters, where they created new competition and spread new diseases to wild populations. Other nations, such as Denmark and Canada, are also leading the way in blocking industrial finfish aquaculture in their waters and boosting more sustainable alternatives. These are the kind of decisive, proactive moves we need at the U.S. federal level.

A sustainable path forward for U.S. seafood is not only possible, but necessary. There are plenty of proven methods for seafood production that can meet consumer demand and create good-paying jobs for people in our communities without damaging our resources. One option is properly scaled and sited land-based recirculating aquaculture projects and aquaponics, where fish and plants are farmed together.

In coastal communities, the ocean is the foundation for our economy. Local fishing businesses, tourism companies, and many more rely on a thriving ecosystem—and they know the importance of preserving natural resources. We need to support our commercial fishing businesses in using the tools and best practices to catch wild fish with a minimal environmental footprint. We also must support other smart, sustainable methods of production. If we instead allow multinational corporations to come into our communities, take over our markets, and damage our resources, local businesses will be squeezed out, and we’ll all lose.

It’s time for our leaders to protect the Gulf of Mexico and other marine ecosystems and economies with legislation like the Keep Finfish Free Act, which would block corporations from building industrial aquaculture facilities in federal waters without specific congressional approval. We must invest our public resources in the independent community-based businesses charting a more sustainable path forward.

Chefs and customers deserve quality local seafood products. We, not big corporations, should decide how and what we eat—and factory fish is off the menu.

Dana Honn is the head chef for and co-owner of Carmo and Café Cour in New Orleans. Marianne Cufone is the executive director of Recirculating Farms and an environmental attorney based in Florida and Louisiana.

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